Someone had to go, or no one was gonna come. That’s baseball in the Motor City in 2002. Fans don’t care. The seats are mostly empty. The saddest part of Phil Garner and Randy Smith’s getting the boot Monday wasn’t that two nice guys couldn’t get the job done.

The saddest part was that it took their firing to let most Detroiters know the season had started.

“Whenever you start off 0-6 it is not pleasant,” said Dave Dombrowski, the team president, in announcing the firing of his manager and general manager.
“I think we’re a better club than we’ve performed.”

Well, let’s hope so. A team of Cub Scouts can go 0-6.

And that’s the problem. There is no “there” on this club. People are not screaming that Garner mismanaged his talent. They’re screaming “WHAT talent?” This isn’t Wayne Fontes’ being booed for mishandling Barry Sanders. There’s no Barry Sanders. The Tigers do not have a single impact player on offense or a single force on the pitching staff. There is, simply put, no compelling reason to go to Comerica Park, unless you like elephant ears.

And Mike Ilitch — who is nothing if not a businessman — knows it.

He just waited too long to do something about it.

“That’s the way it goes,” Smith said after his firing. “I’m proud of what we accomplished here. I believe they will celebrate with the players we’ve provided.”

No offense, Randy, what exactly are we proud of here? Six losing seasons under your control? Don’t we at least have to be over .500 to be proud?

As for celebrating with these players in the future, that may be true. But they’ll likely be celebrating that the season is over.

Smith can complain about a lot of things. He can’t complain about impatience. He was given six years to get the work done — which is five more than he would have received in New York. People questioned his constant trades with the same teams. People questioned his trades for players he had already traded once. Finally, people questioned whether he had compromising photos of Mr. Ilitch in his drawer.

What exactly was this guy’s plan? He was given a new ballpark that is friendlier to pitchers than to hitters, yet he didn’t deliver a single star pitcher. He let star players go (Luis Gonzalez haunts us like a missed flight to Hawaii). And even the players with star credentials went south once they got here. Juan Gonzalez was good before Detroit and good after it, but lousy during. Same for Hideo Nomo.

Smith, meanwhile, got more chances than Robert Downey Jr. The only problem is, Downey has a bigger payroll.

And therein lies the problem for any future GM. Unless Ilitch wants to treat his Tigers the way he treats his Red Wings (team motto: “What we invest in talent, we make back in merchandise!”), you can forget it. Baseball, today more than ever before, is a purchaser’s game.

The Yankees and Diamondbacks, for example, were not in the World Series by charity. Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson could have offshore firms in the Bahamas. And the Yankees — well, put it this way: Pretty soon they’re going to have the All-Star Game in New York and they won’t need to provide any plane tickets.

“Not every team that spends money ends up winning,” Dombrowski warned.

True. But those that don’t spend are guaranteed to lose.

The Tigers don’t want to play in the rich teams’ sandbox. Which leaves them in the mud. Houdini couldn’t have molded a playoff team with Detroit’s 2001 budget.

But at least he would have made it entertaining.

An inevitable fate?

Garner didn’t. A flinty nickname and a passion for straight talk will take you only so far.

“Managers eventually get fired,” Garner said. “I’ll say this for Dave: I appreciate that he didn’t take long to make up his mind.”

You know what that sounds like? A guy who knew it was coming. Dombrowski said he made the final decision Monday morning, but players like Bobby Higginson suspected otherwise.

“It makes you wonder if 2-4 or 3-3 would have made a difference,” Higginson said. “Who knows? Maybe 0-3 was enough to get them fired.”

Or maybe the Opening Day shellacking at Comerica Park, when Tigers got snowed on from the sky AND the opposing team, and fans left after the second inning, muttering under their breath.

Someone had to go, or no one was gonna come. Face it. This team has lost its appeal. It now faces life with an interim manager, and a president holding down the GM job as well. Just how many top candidates are available to play or manage in April?

Not many. The Tigers are in deep. Under Smith, they became the losingest team in baseball. Under Garner, they went backward. The fans departed. They lost interest. Detroit is now a hockey town, a football town, it’s even becoming, slowly, once again, a basketball town.

But it’s a baseball town in memory only. Fourteen seasons without the playoffs will do that.

Here’s a quick test. Without looking anywhere else in this newspaper, quick, tell me the new interim manager of the Tigers.

Told you.

“We need to play harder and better,” Dombrowski said, “but a lot of people think this team is a sleeping giant.”

More sleeping than giant, Dave.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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